January 14th, 2019
A couple of weeks ago, in post #329, I asked readers to respond to a professional query: Whether to publicize or not to publicize the names of clients.
The question I posed was whether my 2-decade plus practice of NOT putting the names of ANY clients in writing was an unnecessary and counterproductive stringency, or an optimum best practice. Any cursory glance at the publications and websites of others in the field of philanthropy advising shows a wide variation on how clients are described and listed, so it is a relevant question for me, especially as we are in the midst of rethinking our own marketing approach.
The responses fell into 2 categories:
Response 1: A narrow majority advocated public listing of clients: They argue that potential clients want to be able to see at a glance what one’s experience has been, how widely used one is, and whether one’s client base is similar to their situation. Many respondents argued that potential clients take for granted that any professional advisor will respect a desire for discretion and confidentiality so that concern should not be a sufficient reason to choose to list none.
Response 2: A smaller group took note of the particular kind of advisory work that I do. They felt that, since I don’t manage anyone’s giving, foundation, or grantmaking, but rather only deal with underlying strategy issues, in my particular case, discretion is the better part of valor. Individuals, families, or foundation boards may not want the world to know that they sought outside counsel for their presenting issue, and by going public, it could put me in the position of having to clarify to those who inquire what the nature of the work was. Better, they felt, to err on the side of sharing relevant referrals only when appropriate. Several posited that credibility is not really a relevant factor since most of us get our business by personal recommendations anyway and not through random pursuit of competitive websites. [Is that true?]
One respondent raised a particularly interesting ethical observation: If we in our field talk about the importance of transparency, shouldn’t that extend to how we present ourselves? I wasn’t persuaded that this is where the transparency rubber needs to hit the philanthropy road, but it did make me wonder if too much discretion might make some suspicious.
For now, I have decided to continue my past practice but to do something I haven’t done before: contact past clients to remind them that I work with a limited number of folks like them. Then it would be fully up to them to decide how public or private they choose to be.
To all who offered their opinion, thanks very much. Your thoughts were much appreciated.
January 10th, 2019
This post is the second of a series on “Alignment” as funders – aligning our values, our staffing, our funding, and our intentions. Clients and those who have participated in our educational offerings are well aware of this thinking, but I have not previously published these practica. Please see #328 and #330 for the other installments.
The series focuses on three necessary preconditions for the successful implementation of a funding strategy. It assumes that readers already have chosen what kind of structure in which they are making these decisions – e.g., a private foundation or a DAF or an LLC, et al. For those readers who are still deciding among those options or when to use which, please feel to be in touch directly since those choices are beyond the scope of this series.
A. About a dozen years ago, I was approached by 2 third generation family members who were struggling with a dilemma. Their grandfather’s instructions were to use the foundation to support “conservation” but didn’t want any of it to go to “environmentalism.” Even if they understood the implicit political leanings in their instructions, how to implement this was proving a challenge. After all, any meaningful “conservation” funding was, of course, a form of commitment to the environment.
B. Many readers, I suspect, are familiar with another challenge of donor intent. A foundation was created “to keep the family together” – as if a lifetime of disfunction or rivalry can suddenly be eliminated because the family members are now forced to sit at the same funding table. Money may go out the proverbial door, but just having a philanthropic vehicle isn’t likely to solve unresolved family issues.
C. A similar dilemma is seen by this not uncommon scenario. The founder wanted the family to come together to make philanthropy decisions, but the organizational recipients or the geographic parameters are so tightly structured that the successor board members are all disenfranchised before they begin. What incentive do they have to participate?
D. Recently, a foundation affirmed that they did not want to support any “social justice” initiatives, when, in fact, they have a long and continuing practice of anti-poverty funding. What might that mean in practice – now and in the future?
E. And then there are those who choose to leave their intentions unstated, freeing subsequent trustees to struggle about what, if any, guidelines should apply. Should they extrapolate from the founders’ own priorities or practices? Is that liberating – endowing future generations with complete freedom – or a sign that the founder was reluctant to face his or her own mortality? What if the kinds of funding the founder chose to do are at odds with the preferences – for whatever reasons – of successor generations? Should they be free to start their thinking de novo, as if no precedent applies? And, finally, in the absence of stated expectations one way or another, is the default assumption that a foundation should exist in perpetuity?
Since the majority of funding entities, especially foundations and donor advised funds, are personal or family oriented, the matter of donor intent is not abstract. In families, every decision is personal and how family members choose to interpret or implement donor intent[ or its absence] can be read as a commentary on his or her relationship to the family, its values, its history, and its legacy. And commentaries can be affirming or judgmental, not always endearing, to others at the table.
As we have shown in prior articles, in most cases, differences of opinions are not necessarily reflections of character flaws at all but may simply be differing but legitimate approaches to philanthropy. I have found that one helpful way to address this is to begin the process by identifying guidelines of what should always be off limits – that is, what should never be funded – because it would have been abhorrent to the founders or would violate their stated intent.
“Negative” guidelines are often easier to address than positive ones. The process can allow wholesale dismissal of entire categories, no matter the merit or type of grant requested. It even can make procedures more efficient especially with on-line guidelines or systems. Insofar as they help address our topic, families can usually agree on these guidelines more easily than those that are inclusive. At least in my professional advisory experience, it has often proved the easiest and quickest way to get at the discussion of what should be on the decision-making table where the real hard work begins.
To illustrate the way “alignment” works, let us revisit the 5 scenarios above to see what might make sense or be helpful in each case.
A. The third generation chose to apply a “conservative” approach to their approach to “conservation.” While they fully recognized that government action can be exponentially more protective, and therefore leverage a conservation commitment, they chose to restrict their funding to the localities and regions where the family lived, and where their decisions would be respected as personal commitments. Their reluctance to engage in advocacy or larger issues was a reluctance to challenge an implied intent, even if, they acknowledged, that mission might be addressed more effectively, and more in keeping with the values of the third generation’s values and priorities through advocacy.
B. There is no single or best practice answer to this one and I suspect that any of us in this field have helped resolve the challenge in a variety of ways. Sometimes, the foundation is large enough and its reach broad enough that the family can simply delegate the operation of the foundation to staff and perfunctorily go through the motions when required. Or perhaps, to set it up so that it is a single foundation in name only but functions as multiple entities under a single rubric. The Foundation continues, but no one is forced to make joint or mutual decisions.
In other occasions, even that may prove too uncomfortable, so the family may decide to close the foundation with a limited number of larger gifts honoring the founders or, perhaps, turn the corpus over to a Donor Advised Fund [see C below.]
C. When the founder/funder tries to “rule from the grave” it invariably backfires. Some in the second generation may feel a sense of obligation to their parents, but very few in subsequent generations will. They may live in different places, have different priorities, or merely not want to waste their time pretending to make decisions that are pre-determined. This is a case where a Donor Advised Fund may be an ideal solution – at lower cost they can manage and honor the founders’ restrictions, and still, nominally at least, keep the family in the loop. [This can work as a partial solution if only some of the institutional commitments are pre-determined. It means that the family or board can concentrate their energies and attentions on matters where their deliberations matter.]
D. When the words and actions diverge, it presents a real cultural challenge to funders. As in “A”, none of us in naïve about the political leanings of the founders, so what should subsequent trustees do – especially since poverty alleviation is always about addressing unfairness and social justice?
This is a case where “alignment” needs to rely on Stage 1 of the strategy process, understanding the implicit “cultures” of the foundation and those in the room. [A process alluded to in post #326 and developed more fully in numerous prior articles.] That process, if done well, has already clarified preferences regarding risk, recognition, involvement, and more. By articulating the how and why of this foundation’s poverty alleviation commitments, it can obviate the need to rely on politically loaded terms about which trustees may disagree.
E. Unarticulated intent is both the most liberating and puzzling at the same time. It happens quite frequently. Often, an attorney is more committed to creating an estate motivated vehicle than fully exploring the philanthropic needs of the family or even the client. [You would be amazed how frequently foundation Articles of Incorporation are little more than boiler plate documents reiterating basic foundation law with virtually no attention to motivation or function.]
In my experience, this has led to a variety of responses. In more cases than one might imagine, the 2nd generation did not even know a foundation existed before the founders died. To take but one example, after a difficult few years trying to make sense of it all, the responses of the third generation proved decisive: they didn’t care where the money went – only that it afforded them the opportunity to connect as an entire family on a regular basis. Once that happened, it obviated the tensions among the 2nd Gen siblings, and led to an affirmative raison d’etre of the foundation.
In another case, an unusually magnanimous founder explicitly articulated her reasons for not formulating messages to successors. She pointed out how the world had changed in her lifetime, her perspectives had evolved over her lifetime, and her understanding of the world was certainly not the same as when she was young. Certainly, future generations would be faced with a very different world and they needed the same autonomy to face their radically changing world. In my experience, there aren’t that many folks who think that way,
Most often, the absence of donor intent serves to handcuff the successor trustees as much as it liberates.. It means that everything is on the table including how committed they need to be interpreting what might have been intended but unsaid, how long to exist, how open-ended their process, how extensive their reach, how open to risk. At the end of the process, if done properly, the successors will have developed an integrated aligned funder approach that works for them and has the impact they desire. If not, it can lead to years of ungratifying grantmaking and having much less of an impact than the resources would allow.
It is worth doing properly.
January 7th, 2019
This post is the first of a series on “Alignment” as funders – aligning our values, our staffing, our funding, and our intentions. Clients and those who have participated in our educational offerings are well aware of this thinking, but I have not previously published these practica. Please see #328 and #330 as the next installments.
The series focuses on three necessary preconditions for the successful implementation of a funding strategy. It assumes that readers already have chosen what kind of structure in which they are making these decisions – e.g., a private foundation or a DAF or an LLC, et al. For those readers who are still deciding among those options or when to use which, please feel to be in touch directly since those choices are beyond the scope of this series.
A quarter century ago, I realized that the classic strategy process I was taught, and the one still widely used, had real limitations. It called for developing and articulating an organization’s Mission and Vision as the first step in the process. Mission and vision are fine, but why was it, I wondered, that so many of the very same disagreements and misunderstandings that existed prior to developing a mission presented themselves in the decision-making board room only hours after that Mission statement was so carefully crafted?
The insight I had then, one now widely understood and used in the field and recently much disseminated by groups such as GEO and CEP, was that culture trumps strategy. So, the challenge, I felt, was to get deeply into the underlying cultural assumptions of everyone in the room PRIOR to the decision-making process. Surfacing those cultural assumptions had the power of legitimating differing inclinations regarding philanthropic behaviors. [Mission Statements still have an important place in the strategy process, just at a different stage.]
Over the years, as 100’s of foundation clients and those who have taken workshops with me can attest, I have added levels of sophistication about how to get at those assumptions and to lead directly into the next level of decisions that every funder at every level needs to address. Over those same years, additionally, I have formulated the subsequent elements: how to align all of the pieces of strategy – culture, values, focus, capacity, and style to develop an effective implementation. That requires careful alignment of all of the factors that inform those decisions. It is this alignment that makes it all work
As a way to understand this approach, this first piece in the series will address a very contemporary challenge to all of us as funders. While not new, it has never been so crucial as now, nor ever as present in our public discourse – the role of equity in our grantmaking.
To understand this, we need to decide what we fund, how we fund, and who makes the decisions that funding – in this case, about equity.
1. The “what we fund” question seems the easiest – on the surface. After all, social justice, correcting the systemic and endemic inequities that have defined our society for generations, seems to be a no-brainer. There are differing approaches about who should have what role in redressing these ills, but only the myopic or misanthropic deny it is an issue.
a. Compassion: The challenge for most of us is where along the continuum of needs we should use our resources. Compassion may inspire many to provide food, clothing, housing, and other services that provide immediate relief. Indeed, it is typically the first stop along the funding continuum. We see results for a visible problem. Those results may not be lasting, and they are certainly not systemic, but they work – and after all, the food, clothing, or housing is needed now.
For those who desire hands-on involvement, support for their local community or neighborhood, or who want the very legitimate gratification knowing that there is a positive result of one’s personal altruism, this may be a perfect alignment of values and funding.
b. Strategic: It doesn’t take long, for many, to realize that one cannot efficiently or effectively give every homeless person some food or money, so if those categories matter, compassion funding has genuine limitations. Many look for better strategies to leverage their compassion – to feed more people, to house more people, to clothe more people. When we ask the questions of effectiveness and efficiency [and they are NOT synonyms], it leads us to look for organizations that provide those direct services in better ways than we can do ourselves. Our motivations, to make a difference that goes beyond our own individual funding capacity, leads us to examine alternative methods and organizations. This process requires that we need and use additional skills and approaches to make our decisions and lead us to consider a variety of competing claims. For those willing to defer the immediate gratification of direct funding for the satisfaction of a broader and more comprehensive reach to address these same human problems, and willing to put more time and energy into making hard decisions, strategic funding is an important approach.
c. Systemic: Strategic approaches have the advantage of helping make good choices among competing organizations. Not every organization is equally adept at delivering services and not every organization does so in a way consistent with the approach of a given funder. But, for many, even strategic funding is insufficient. For systemic thinkers, the question is not which organization provides food or clothing or housing most effectively, but rather how to eliminate the need for those services at all.
Once one begins to approach questions of equity systemically, it becomes evident that most issues require a multi-sector approach and are not simply a matter of choosing between the best available option. If someone is homeless, it reflects a confluence of failures. A solution also requires a convergence of interventions. No single entity, indeed, no single sector, can deal with the large issues of homelessness, food insecurity, long term economic disparity, education, and, of course, poverty. Each requires public policy responses, private sector investments, social service expertise, and community development organizations – in addition to private philanthropy.
Aligning these efforts is no small task – failures far outnumber successes. Funders need patience, mediating skills, advocacy, a willingness to surrender some autonomy, and a tolerance for failure. A full self-awareness of the elasticity and parameters of one’s funding culture and style are preconditions. If these larger systemic challenges align with your comfort level, it opens up the possibility of addressing and perhaps making a permanent dent in society’s more resistant challenges. If, though, you don’t bring those attributes to the table, it is likely that this kind of funding will prove frustrating and unsatisfying. Alignment matters.
All three of these funding approaches legitimately count as equity funding but not all will work for every funder. Thus “alignment.”
2. How we fund is about the methods we use to get the information we need and then how we make our choices. After all, any subject as big as “equity” has many players, and at many levels, and there are very legitimate competing claims for our resources..[There is no end to information we can gather about potential grantees, but much of it is not useful, or won’t really be used to make a decision. If you would like further advice about how to understand and effectively utilize the kinds of information that can inform our choices, please be in touch directly. That is beyond the scope of this series.]
Depending on how open or controlling we wish to be in our grantmaking, how competitive or funder pre-determined our method, will help lead to our approach for getting proposals in our docket. As we will see in #330, much of this directly relates to our preferences or choices about staffing, but it also reflects different preferences about how we wish to spend our time, how open we are to innovation, how committed we may be to certain organizations, and what relationship we wish to have with grantees.
There is no single correct/right way to do this, and indeed many funders use multiple approaches. What is clear, though, is that if we are never open to new ideas or explorations from organizations we have never funded, our own knowledge can easily become stale. And since equity has historically been so elusive to achieve, it would be quite shortsighted to presume that our past approaches are sufficient or our knowledge complete.
The implications for equity funding are very real. Those who are committed to established organizations are more typically [not always] more risk averse, and more likely to want to establish or maintain direct involvement with a limited number of organizations. Their confidence in those organizations makes it more likely that core support will be provided, or that new projects will be developed collaboratively. They are more likely to use evidence-based criteria, and it is likely that any projects they fund will succeed albeit in a strategic and not systemic way.
Except for the deepest pocketed funders, this also, typically, leads to organization that are either geographically or ideologically very close to the funders. Very very few funders have the in-house expertise to determine organizational effectiveness all over the place. Similar to the above, it leads to a likelihood to provide operating grants or core support and to be committed to the strength of the organization as a necessary precondition to reducing inequity in the field in which that organization works.
However, as we have stated above, we also know that there are problems that can only be addressed systemically, at scale, and with equal parts guts and patience. Funders open to partnerships and collaborations, willing to take big risks, and accept uncertainty are more likely to fund this way – and therefore will customarily choose to use a more varied process for obtaining potential grantees and projects. If one wants to get at the underlying causes of poverty or the seemingly ineradicable racism in American society, equity issues if there ever were any, we will likely broaden the sources of information, expand the scope of the thinking, and look for intersector opportunities before proceeding. This will usually demand a much longer time frame for decision making and be much more committed to using a not yet proven theory of change.
The alignment issue is quite clear in these examples. At different stages along the way, a funder is in or out, has comfort or doesn’t, considers the challenge within their scope of focus or not. What matters is being sufficiently self-aware to make the choices that will work best.
3. Who makes the decision: For those who have been on the funder side of the table for more than a while, this may seem to be a strange question. After all, one of the hallmarks of private philanthropy is the autonomy it allows. All sorts of people might be invited to have opinions or share their expertise, but the decision about who makes the decision where to give the money is [was] clear – and not terribly negotiable.
The “equity” question, though, forces a different reckoning – and it is here where debate is rampant in our field. And for good reason. Philanthropists and foundations are reflective of the haves. There is an implicitly patronizing element to our work – no matter how genuine and beneficent our affect and intentions. We traditionally give TO those who need it – or, more accurately, to organizations who know who needs it. How often are our recipients in the room, in any of our decision-making rooms?
If one wishes to reduce the divide and responsibly work toward social justice, it means, many now say, that funders need to take seriously the new mantra “nothing about us without us.” They would argue that the real change that must take place is not that money needs to be allocated with care, but who actually makes the decision.. This equity argument has both a practical side [“who knows better than we…”] and a justice side [“who are you to decide what is best for me…”].
Even if one fully endorses that empowerment should be a given, it is far from a given where in the continuum of decision-making that empowerment ends. The arguments range from full surrendering/delegation of decision-making to the impacted stakeholders to making sure that they have seats at various tables along the way.
From a philanthropy perspective, it is far from easy. Succession and surrendering control have proven hard enough when the successors are family. To go so far as to say that the only true social justice philanthropy is surrendering decision making to what had previously been the “recipient class” is a profound and radical leap.
Yet if one is committed to addressing systemic inequities, and eradicating destructive class and financial divides, it is a discussion that one must have.
Alignment in #1 and #2 above are making sure that our way of being funders works best – for us. #3 reminds us that none of our decisions is made in a vacuum. Each has implications not only for how we do our work, but what our values and funding stand for. That is never easy…but always important.
January 2nd, 2019
This post is not a typical one. Instead of offering thoughts on the philanthropy to our field, this is a request for feedback from funders, philanthropists, and foundations, and colleagues. It is inspired by the many self-congratulatory posts and emails disseminated widely at this time of year, and a professional question they raise for me.
I certainly have only admiration for those in our field who have been recognized and successful. After all, the philanthropy world desperately needs informed, experienced, ethical, and independent professionals who can make sure that our collective billions are wisely spent. While success does not automatically mean that those advisors are all of those things, I would like to think that many are, and are deserving of their success. [Some, I know, are less so, and are simply great salespeople, but for the purpose of this piece, we will set that issue aside.]
The reason for this public inquiry is a detail about if and when it is appropriate to publicize the names of clients.
Over the years, my own practice has been quite consistent. I never publicly share the name of a client. There are two exceptions: when potential clients want references, of course, I provide a limited number of names, but that is always a private, non-public, matter. The other exception is in teaching – and then only when I have the explicit permission of the client or the clients themselves have chosen to publicly acknowledge my role. In neither situation, though, would I put those names in published articles, on our website, or on social media.
The reasoning for this practice is very straightforward: I don’t want potential clients to be concerned that I might reveal their names when they expect confidentiality. I don’t want to rely on disclaimers to assure them of discretion.[I should add here that I do not seek or accept retainer contracts; I only work on a project basis on matters of funder strategy, succession, and the like. Therefore, I am never in the role of being, functionally, a part time foundation officer. It is not a typical business model in our world and may help explain my thinking.]
If many of the end of year “reviews” we have all seen this past couple of weeks are indications, my very conservative practice is not the norm. Clearly many very respected colleagues are quite comfortable being very public with their client listings. Indeed, it may even enhance their marketability.
Thus, my questions – and I really hope to hear from funders as well as advisor colleagues:
• Is my long-time practice impractical and unnecessary, or conversely, does it inspire confidence?
• To funders: are you more or less inclined to invite a proposal from an advisor who has a publicly-posted list of clients? How do you learn about experienced professionals in the field?
• To advisors: what is your thinking regarding the question of publicizing clients? Have you ever experienced push back or do you find that publicizing client names enhances your appeal? If you have chosen to publicize, when do you raise that question with clients? If you have chosen not to do so, what alternative marketing approaches do you find most helpful?
It may seem strange to many of you that, this late in my career, I am raising this question. As some of you may know, I had largely suspended my advisory practice to concentrate on being a trustee, an educator, a private funder and a speaker. During this past year, though, in response to a number of direct requests, I have re-opened my philanthropy advisory practice. These questions, then, are quite relevant.
In advance, thanks. Best wishes for a successful 2019 to all.
December 28th, 2018
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
This quote by Maya Angelou has become a mantra in the professional public speaking world of which I am a part. Far be it from me to disagree with such a distinguished personage, but I do. This article is about “what you said.”
In the last few weeks, I have had surprising and moving experiences of people actually remembering what I said or wrote – in one case all the way back to 1968, in another all the way back to 1980. And the week before then, 3 articles I had written for 3 different journals in three unrelated contexts were, coincidentally republished. This is not the first time these kinds of gratifying experiences have happened, but I daresay never in such close proximity to each other. Never let it be said that words don’t matter. Words did and do matter.
Such self-congratulatory comments would have been tempting to write about, but I would have resisted had events of the last few days not happened. For the last 3 years, 2 of which under the constancy of a president for whom veracity is elusive, his words of divisiveness and contributing to overt hatred have characterized his influence on the public square. This week we saw more manifestations that words indeed do matter as one fanatic booster sent bombs to those whose political views that president has demonized. Rarely has there been such a straight-line connection between speech and action. And no sooner was that person arrested, we find ourselves agonizing through a mass murder with explicit anti-Semitic motivations, also influenced by distortions of fact by the sitting president. I am working hard to make sure that my own rage is directed toward the profound changes we must make and not just verbally wringing my hands.
The current occupant of the seat of the US Presidency may be an outlier in his extreme use of derisive speech and abusive rhetoric. I can add my abhorrence of such words and affect, but I am not sure that I have any insights that will soothe the pain in the hearts of so many around the USA, nor suggest a way to change that behavior that have not already been proposed. History will surely judge him, and history will also judge whether our national ethos proves better than that.
This post, though, is not about him but about us. Since there is so little “hearing” across the current political divide, I realize that I am not exempt from doing my share to bring about change.
As long-time readers may recall, I have learned that a lifetime of professionally interesting positions have enabled the kinds of anecdotes with which I began this piece Many others have accomplished at least as much and are well-deserving recipients of public plaudits. But long-time readers should also recall that one should proceed with humility before taking too many bows. Yes, my words have been recalled with fondness and affirmation by some, but I have also learned that some recall my words and affect less positively. Some with hurt.
Typically, one doesn’t hear those negatives – or we deftly block them out. In fact, it takes courage to tell someone that they screwed up and even more that one’s words were hurtful or had a negative impact.. And it takes courage to even allow oneself to hear that kind of feedback when offered.
It doesn’t matter if our words were intended – I doubt that most of us are willful or malicious very often. Sometimes our words are simply imprecise or imperfect. Sometimes our own context isn’t fully perceptible to others. Sometimes we are simply misunderstood.
Sometimes, though, we make mistakes. We say the wrong things at the wrong time. We indulge our own needs without appropriate empathy for others. We say words without any sensitivity to how they will be heard.
The more visible or influential our position, the more this can happen. There are many more who hear or read our words whom we hardly know, or know only in passing, or whom we will never meet. This is true for all of us but the more public, the more responsibility we have.
My own pride in the affirming stories of recent weeks is tempered by knowing that some others surely have different recollections. It is humbling.
I only wish that certain political leaders would learn this lesson. Soon.
In the USA, 6 November 2018 would be a good time for that to happen!
PS: 28 December As the shutdown continues, it is still a lesson worth remembering.
December 21st, 2018
I write this in the hours after our heartless government passed an 11th hour farming bill . Not so hidden was a coal-in-the-stocking gift to almost 1 million of the USA’s most at risk citizens. That gift, a reduction in SNAP [nee “food stamps”] eligibility.
The “justification” [and I use the quotation marks to show how cynical that argument] is that it would make it easier to return this population to the work force.
Let us be clear: only a mean spirited, and morally blind administration can make such a double-speak case. After all, the overwhelming majority of SNAP recipients already work as much as they can or have legitimate disabilities that drastically limit their ability to do so. Yes, these already hard-working poor do rely on society’s moral compass to assist them. SNAP doesn’t guarantee that a school child goes to school well-fed, but the absence guarantees that they won’t. It doesn’t guarantee that summers keep people from falling deeper into learning and employment deficits from which they might never recover.
This is not a case without evidence. Government sponsored, academic, and independent studies have all consistently shown that SNAP funding is the single most efficient way to reduce food insecurity. Because food is purchased at regular markets, it solves the distribution problem faced by soup kitchens and pantries [as necessary as they still are.] Once approved, it is user friendly because of the use of debit cards. And it is built on the true underlying motivation that providing dignity to recipients is more likely to encourage and abet upward mobility than more punitive approaches.
Yes, there are those whose view of government’s role means that this evidence means nothing. They, and I cannot write this without disdain, believe that government should have as little responsibility to the health and welfare of its citizens as possible. Let voluntarism take care of them. And if they fall between the cracks, it must be because of character flaws. Given the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, there can be no other argument.
But if they truly believed that productive work would save people from dependence on SNAP funding, why do those same politicians resist raising the minimum wage so workers might actually be able to live on their meager earnings? Why don’t they provide preventive health care so that workers know that they and their children can work as productively as possible without fear of incurring insurmountable debt just to care for their families? And more.
The real answer, and it is bitter and sad to say, is what I suggested above: we have policy motivated by meanness and bullying. If you haven’t made it so far, it must be your fault. Piling on is just fair retribution for your failings.
Before concluding, I want to respond to an oft heard criticism of those requiring our assistance. They charge that welfare cheats run rampant, that people on SNAP funding buy indulgent soft drinks and sweets. Why should we subsidize them?
Yes, I am sure that if one looks hard enough, one can find some who are cheating, some trying to scam the system, some who, by some standards don’t really deserve our support. But, I daresay that the percentage of those who try to get SNAP funding illegitimately pales in comparison to those middle- and upper-class citizens who try to scam the IRS, knowingly file less than complete or otherwise dishonest tax returns. Of course, you, dear reader, would never do such a thing, but you know of others that do – and most of them do it as a game, or because you believe that the rest of society needs it less than they do. I suspect that those small numbers of those who try to get extra SNAP funding are not sitting pretty in suburbia or in doorman high-rises.
The philanthropy world has been extraordinarily gutsy and outspoken about childhood bullying, using extensive resources to address a problem we all understand. There are very few families that haven’t experienced or witnessed bullying behavior [by, to, or both]. We know that it impacts learning, social development, communal comity, and individual dignity. We have not been silent on the changes we see as necessary and we have not been reluctant to expect governments, schools, and the media to respond.
It is time that we put those same resources to work, immediately, to eliminate bullying by policy. If equity means anything, if fairness means anything, if opportunity means anything, if public health mean anything, if our social and moral compasses mean anything, we have no choice.
Bullying has no place in any healthy society. Nor does enforced food insecurity. Both must be stopped.
November 23rd, 2018
I guess it was inevitable. We were attending a wonderful and illuminating dinner learning about a cutting edge and courageous program in one of the world’s most famous trouble spots. It was a low-keyed fundraiser, but more so, an opportunity for opinion makers to learn that positive developments are possible even amidst wrenching political settings.
The event was held in the palatial home of someone who had originally come from that part of the world and has become quite successful in the USA. Those of us who attended were moved and motivated by the presentations, and that is saying something since this was not a group comprised of naifs.
As the MC was bringing the evening to a close, one of the attendees shouted from her seat that she had a very important question and insisted that she have an opportunity to ask it.
“What is your overhead?” she shouted.
As it happens, the answer was very reassuring to this obvious skeptic, but it was such an unfortunate way to end the evening.
So, at the risk of revisiting a topic that those of us in the philanthropy world have addressed for years, a few observations:
• “Overhead” is a very problematic and misleading term. It implies that there are costs totally unrelated to the project. I prefer the term “infrastructure”. The term makes it clear that no project or program exists independent of the organizational context in which it sits. Someone has to turn on the lights, clean the floors, hire and supervise the staff, account for the finances, and so much more. Most [but not all] of us on the funder side know this and fully recognize that it is counterproductive to fund a program without assuring its likelihood of success. That requires support for the infrastructure. [In another place we can have a discussion about how to determine what that amount might be.]
• If we already know this, why did this potential contributor feel that her question was so important that the evening could not conclude without her asking about “overhead.” [It was noteworthy that the presenters barely alluded to the financing of this project; there could have been so many more relevant financial questions.]
We in our field deserve some of the blame. A few years ago, as information about non-profits became democratized, the rating organizations tried to develop tools for decision-making. Percentage of “overhead” seemed an easy one. After all, it was a seemingly objective number and would raise red flags to phony or exorbitant fundraisers. The problem of course, is that not every project is equal and not every organization is at the same stage of development. Most important, though, it implicitly reinforced a concept that those who were not delivering direct service are simply superfluous flab.
Those of us in the field know that, a few years ago, the primary rating organizations issued their own mea culpa on this. They realized that they had done an inadequate job of conveying what questions should be addressed before looking at fundraising ratios and, to their credit, and to our field’s benefit, they have worked hard since to make sure that the now readily available financial data is only one important indicator of the value and worth of a project or organization.
• The force of the question that evening demonstrated that we still have a long way to go. Philanthropic giving has not only become democratized through on-line fundraising and access to organizational tax returns and financial information. It has also become unmediated. The average donor or funder has the option to make direct contributions, a mostly healthy development, but most haven’t taken the kinds of seminars or courses that we and many others offer to learn how to make decisions. That evening reinforced for me that our role as philanthropoids and philanthropy educators must not be restricted to the cognoscenti. We need to be better about showing how good decisions can be informed and responsible. And we need to do so in accessible ways: the appeal of the “overhead” percentage metric is that it is quick and supposedly “objective”. If we are going to provide more useful decision-making tools, we need to do so in ways that are also accessible without forcing a level of due diligence that might paralyze a well-meaning and caring donor.
All of this is particularly important as we approach “Giving Tuesday” and end of the year solicitations. There are many wonderful and deserving causes out there, and, sad to say, some who are, to put it kindly, phonies. One should ask questions before writing that check or using that credit card. Make sure the organization you want to fund is legitimate and is not one that just sounds like one that is. For most, that means making sure that it has legal 501(c)3 status. Make sure that it is an organization whose mission and program is one that aligns with your own priorities. All of us can get caught up in emotional giving, but we don’t want to look back and say, “why did I do that?” And it is certainly relevant to look to see what criteria an organization chooses to demonstrate its success [Hint: how much you can give each day isn’t a very good criterion; what actual changes they are bringing about is.]
At this time of year, unless you are prepared to spend time doing real significant research, stick with proven non-profits. They may or may not be the most efficient, or the most cutting edge, but there is a pretty strong likelihood that your money will go to what you want it to go for.
For those who want to learn how to dig deeper, January or February is a much better time to learn how. And will lead make next year’s giving season that much more gratifying.
November 16th, 2018
This replaces a prior version of this post that was posted with errors. Apologies.
I didn’t plan it that way, but events have a way of happening. So, it was that I found myself in Berlin on 9 November 1989.
The trip changed my life [and, of course, much of the world.].
I was in Germany as a guest of what was then West Germany. A small group of young-ish [today, we would call us emergent] Jewish leaders was invited for 3 weeks to demonstrate how the nation had dealt with its shameful past and the underlying values that defined the new Germany.
The content of the trip was fascinating. Quite appropriately, it included powerful exploration of Holocaust places and remembrances. It introduced us to how education about the nadir of civilization was being taught to all school students, how there is now a policy of the military that enables, indeed mandates, resistance to immoral orders. And, perhaps most telling, it began to show how a nation was moving from memory to myth – how that terrible period will be understood long after those with direct memory are no more.
The trip, though, was not only about The Shoah. It reminded us that Jews lived in Germany for 2000 years. We saw the birthplace of what is known as Ashkenazic Jewry in the Rhine Valley. We visited the birthplaces of Modern Jewry – both Reform and Neo [Modern] Orthodoxy. And much more.
Jews were not suddenly transported to Germany in 1932 to experience the Holocaust; rather there was a long,, complex, and often thriving and robust diaspora there for a long time.
And lest we think that this was only a trip of parochial interest, I have a folio from the Gutenberg printing press in Mainz in our personal collection. We sat in the home of Beethoven’s birth. And more.
And we also saw the great Wall dividing the “free” West from the Soviet East. That divide meant almost certain death for any daring to cross it. Armed GDR troops on one side had their fingers on the triggers, and the armies of 3 other powers were on the alert on the other. That was visible and palpable all the way through the morning of 9 November.
It was coincidence that I remained for a few days after the conclusion of our program. So it was that I was in Berlin that day. Today, few remember that the militaries were all on full alert. The end of the GDR was clearly in the offing. But none were confident that it would be a peaceful end. Truth be told, that no sergeant lost his cool was the real miracle of that historic day.
My own life, as I said, was changed by that – both professionally and personally. As an American, never again could I revert to the provincialism of seeing my world as disconnected to that which was happening across the Pond. And, as a Jew, never again could I view our existence in simplistic terms. History, politics, identities are all interwoven – and that trip brought that complexity to the fore. It became a defining element of my own persona, and my professional work.
The world seemed very binary at that time. When the Wall fell, optimism for a new, different, and better era seemed inevitable. We were confident that the liberties and freedoms, and even the economic success we took for granted in the West would soon become universal. Prosperity and enfranchisement for all. It was just a matter of investment, planning… and learning.
Well, 3 decades have shown us how elusive and illusory that romantic optimism was. We have witnessed nationalist and ethnic backlashes. We have seen that greed, selfishness, and myopia have made sharing the wealth of the developed world with those still in need seem Sisyphean. And, we have learned that painful lesson that not all share our vision of a world with liberties and justice for all – regardless of race, gender, religion, or national origin.
I write this for publication the week of this auspicious anniversary. Looking back now, these days and in this week, as an American, as a Jew, as a student of history, I realize the fragility of civil society, the brevity of memory, and the destructive hubris of leaders motivated by xenophobic rage,
History teaches us to be vigilant. Germany wasn’t – and we weren’t – and it took millions of lives and a radical change in world order to recover from that silence. Today the stakes are even higher. The earth’s climate change is an existential challenge to all human beings. Technology doesn’t allow any but the fiction of isolationism. And the deepest-seated cynicism toward institutions means that too many are simply unwilling to invest any energies in preserving a democratic society – not just in the USA but in too many places.
Looking back, the Fall of the Wall did not usher in an era of guaranteed freedoms and prosperity for all. It did usher in a time of great challenges – and choices. I am trying hard not to be trite, but if there was ever a time to learn from the past, an historic moment with much to teach us, and with moral values that need to infuse our thinking, this is it.
November 8th, 2018
A friend and honored colleague in the National Speakers Association, Bruce Weinstein Ph.D., is known as The Ethics Guy.
He speaks and writes extensively about ethics and high character leadership and has a regular column for Forbes online.. Recently, he has been expanding his conversation about ethics to those beyond the business sphere. Thus, he has asked for my thoughts about my particular expertise in this discussion, philanthro-ethics and why they matter.
First, some definitions: Ethics involve choices. Unlike morality where there is a “right” and “wrong”, ethics means that there are competing claims – each of which has some legitimacy even if they may not be equal. Ethics is also not a synonym of “legal”. There are many times when what is legal falls far short of recognized ethical standards. [Would that it were otherwise!] The law is too often nothing more than enacted self-interests and not reflective of true public interest. I am confident that no reader needs examples.
Why is this so important in the philanthropy world?
Underpinning philanthropy, and thus philanthro-ethics, is the extraordinary disparity of power that is endemic to the financial divide between those who want/need and those who have/give. Anyone who has heard me speak or teach for the last 18 years is well aware of my concern with this power imbalance, and the particular challenge that funders have. It mandates that funders develop a sensitivity to the “conscious use of self” in settings where grantees and potential grantees are present. It is incumbent on funders to make it safe for those who need our funds to tell us the truth. It is obligatory that our funding enables the greatest likelihood of success in whatever we choose to fund – and allows for the inevitable failure of some of those projects. It is a profound imperative that our decisions be informed by those who will be most impacted by our decisions.
[For the record, I am delighted that both NCRP and SSIR have recently also entered this discussion in a big way. Their combined reach is far greater than mine and therefore should have more influence on our sector’s behavior than my writings and speaking over the years have had.]
Best practices in philanthro-ethics extend from the board and board room, to how we define our relationships with external entities through our conflict of interest and spending policies, to what we value in our grant decisions, to the character of the relationships we maintain with our grantees.. We are constantly faced with choices that reflect the values we affirm, the affect we demonstrate, and our awareness of the roles we play in our sector, in the non-profit world at large, and in the larger public policy space.
Indeed philanthro-ethics is, at its core, simply a manifestation of the best practices that define our unique and privileged role in the world. And that role must never be taken lightly.
October 6th, 2018
The Wise Philanthropy Institute reminds fellow funders that the its most recently updated edition of “Should You Go It Alone? – A guide to collaborations, partnerships and mergers” is available by request. This practicum has been WPI‘s most requested piece for last 10 years.
Now, for the first time, the WPI guide on exit strategies “When the Buck Stops Here” is also available as well. This practical guide has been privately requested frequently, but this is the first time it is being made publicly available.
Both of these are available gratis by direct request – only to funders. For a copy or further information, info@WisePhilanthropy.com